I approached the cliff’s edge with some trepidation. The large stone in my hands was easily in excess of thirty pounds. With a small swing I released the stone over the edge mindful not to let the momentum pull me over with it. I dropped to my belly and inched forward as quickly as I could anxious to see the stone before it struck the earth beneath it. The stone cut the air with increasing force so that before I could bring my face over the lip of the cliff the rising volume of its whooshing decent told me it had not struck yet. Looking down I could see the stone had become a deadly projectile. “Now” I thought but it sped on, the air cutting with still greater volume. Crack! The stone partly vaporized into a fine mist and like the crackle of an exploding firework the remaining small fragments of the stone scattered along the valley floor. “That was Awesome! Jeremy bring that camera over here you’ve got to get this on film.” He made to approach the cliff, he wanted to join me in my juvenile fun, but the height was too great. I threw a slightly larger stone from the precipice but sadly I have no video of its fall.
We had reached the ridge leading to the Jebel (Mount) Shams summit when I threw the rock. We had already passed some amazing views by this point. Jeremy and I had set out after church on Friday for the mountain with plans to make our ascent early Saturday morning. We located the trail head and setup camp. The trail begins right next to a mountain top hotel at approximately 2000 meters and climbs about 1000 meters in just over 9 kilometres to the summit. Jebel or Jabal Shams (depending on who is doing the transliteration) is the 110th most prominent peak in the world and the highest peak in Oman. It is at the same height that an airplane’s cabin is pressurized, about 10,000 feet. The drive from sea level to our Friday night camp was highlighted by the ever declining mercury. The temperature was about 46 celsius when we began our ascent and plummeted to 28 degrees where we stopped to setup camp.
Jeremy and I had packed well for this adventure. We each had half a dozen 1.5 litre bottles of water we had frozen solid the night before. In addition we both brought our hydration packs which each carried 2 litres of water. We also brought an assortment of excellent meals and snacks. Of course, we are both pretty physically fit so we anticipated a good hike with some stunning views.
Neither of us had hiked the mountain before and we did just a cursory online exploration before we set out. As we relaxed in front of the fire Friday night we went over the “maps.” I’d like to say we had some excellent topos but what we had was a red squiggly line on a white paper with some highlights. Looking at this “map” for the first time we had an indication of the distance, it read 9km. It wasn’t clear whether it was 9km return or 9km each way. A friend and her husband made the hike she claimed in 6 hours return which led me to suspect the trip would be 18km. So we began to reason out just how much water we might need. We’ve been running a good deal lately. I can run 21 kilometres in 40+ degree weather with the 2 litres in my hydration pack. So we reasoned 18km, factoring in the ascent, should only require maybe 2.5 litres. If our friend could make the round trip in 6 hours we could do it in 5 maybe even 4! Pride goeth before the fall.
I’ll just take a moment here to point out that I am an idiot. Those who know me well are acquainted with this fact. I, however, seem to forget this often. I have this ability to talk people into doing things they would never do if they were left to their own devices and it generally always turns out… . I can’t say badly. It generally always turns out to be memorable – yea, that works. 2.5 litres of water (really 2 litres of water and 500ml of sports drink) is ludicrously too little. Even if I thought it would take 4 hours to make the hike I should have realized that 4 hours is significantly longer than an hour and forty minutes (my 21k time). The other factor that never really penetrated my thick skull was we were at high altitude which was going to make this climb more difficult than I could imagine as I relaxed before the fire.
I was panting hard as I watched a heavy bead of sweat roll off Jeremy’s face and splash against the rock at his feet. We were about an hour out of camp so it must have been around 6:30am. The sun was still low in the sky and the temperature was likely still in the mid twenties. Why was I out of breath? The fact that I was at high altitude and getting higher with every step never really got through to me. An hour in and the sports drink was gone. It was clear that we would need to ration our water. I was hopeful that we were nearing if not passed the half way mark.
The “trail” was extremely well marked. Not that you could see a well worn path. There were painted Omani flags about every 50 feet. Only a handful of times on the trip did we really struggle to locate the next yellow, white and red marker. A mighty thanks to the folks that trudged up that mountain with cans of paint! The climb was a continual march upward over a field of stones. I had read before I came that it was highly advisable to wear hiking boots. Unfortunately, I do not own a pair of hiking boots so my Nike barefoot runners would just have to do. The entire day was an exercise in hopping from one stone to another in a giant game of leapfrog. In this game though you never knew which stone would snag your foot and try to pull you down or stab at your exposed ankles or kicked up by your left foot come down wickedly on your right foot. My feet hate me. Jeremy had hiking boots but he wasn’t spared. He had not worn his boots in over a year! He stopped by my house tonight and I got a look at the blisters covering his toes – ouch.
It took us 4 hours and 10 minutes to reach the summit of Jebel Shams. I had a little over 1 litre of water remaining. Jeremy a little less. There is a metal plaque cemented to a pile of rocks at the summit showing the cardinal points and indicating the names of mountains and towns that can be seen from the stunning 360 degree view. There was no shade to be had but I suspect the temperature at the summit was still in the low twenties. It was rather comfortable. I lied down on a smooth rock for a nap. We stayed there perhaps 30 minutes. The birds were beginning to dive close to see if we had expired.
I had hope that the trip down would go more quickly than the trip up. My hope was in vain. Our efforts to conserve water meant that we had been running on the minimum for hours. Thankfully I had brought several granola bars and Jeremy had not only some great snacks but energy gels to keep him going. Breakfast that morning consisted of boiled eggs and fruit but time was getting on that a real meal was in order. At about the 6 hour mark Jeremy became very quiet and his pace slowed considerably. At about the 7 hour mark we both ran out of water. Just moments later we met a group of three men hiking up the mountain fully loaded with gear to camp at the top. They were jealous of our light packs. We were jealous of the water that surely was in theirs. We learned that they were each carrying over 11 litres. Smart. They pointed out that literally at our feet was a litre of water left by previous hikers that would be safe to drink. We each took a few mouthfuls of the hot liquid and left the remainder for the next wayward travellers.
Being on the mountainside we could see our destination in the distance, surely it was not long now. At this point I was beginning to develop a few blisters. My heels and ankles were already bruised. Afraid that Jeremy would sit or fall down somewhere behind me and I would not be able to find him among the rocks I took up the march just behind him. At the eighth hour my throat had become painfully dry and I could feel my lips burning. I sucked on a small pebble to keep my throat moist. I’ve had heat stroke twice and I know how quickly it can come on. I was brush-cutting in Northern BC when I’d forgotten my water in the pickup truck (a half kilometre away). I decided to spend a tank of gas before I trudged back to the vehicle to get it. A tank of gas took nearly exactly an hour to burn. It was morning and the sun was not yet high. I could make an hour. In coveralls, rubber boots, gloves and a hard hat running a saw and exposed to the rising sun an hour was all it took. When the brush-cutter’s engine made the familiar upward pitch in volume indicating the gas was nearly spent it turned out so was I. I barely had time to release the saw from its harness before I was puking and then crapping and then lying in what little shade I could find beneath a small bush. It was nothing short of a miracle that I didn’t die there alone in the shade that day. I fell asleep there for sometime and then waking pled for help. I managed after that to drag myself back to the truck, water and life.
I kept mentally running over my condition. If Jeremy collapsed in front of me could I make a sprint to the vehicle and back for water? I could. At the ninth hour we arrived back at the vehicle. I poured ice cool water over my head and face and then drank deeply. I noticed for the first time that my forearms were burnt. I’d applied sunblock that morning but clearly I’d been out long enough that a second or third application would have been wise. I pulled off my shoes and socks to find my legs from the knees to the ankles were burnt too. My white feet made a comical contrast. I poured water over my feet and slipped on some sandals.
It took 30 minutes or so before we were no longer shaky. We’d made it. Now it was a simple matter of driving the 6+ hours home. Jeremy showed some remarkable endurance – he drove the entire way. I was certain to yap his ear off to keep him going – a fate worse than what we’d met on the mountain I’m sure. We stopped in Al Ain after a world record border crossing time. We crossed the border just before Iftar and the guards kindly provided us with water and dates. Ramadan Kareem. In Al Ain we stopped at the mall and ordered piles of greasy fries and burgers and then patiently waited five more minutes, our steaming fries cooling in front of us, for Iftar to begin. We washed that down with ice cream from Cold Stone. I could not help but be grateful that the climb was so much harder than anticipated. The ice cream was 1000 times better than it would have been otherwise.
For the adventurers that may stumble upon this blog looking for information on the Jebel Shams hike and who managed to read all the way to this point (clearly you have the dedication to make the summit) here are a few words of advice:
- Carry at minimum 4-6 litres of water.
- Be sure to have excellent footwear (hiking boots)
- You will sweat and be walking I recommend Vaseline to take care of the chaffing
- Carry sunscreen – wear a wide brim hat
- Pack plenty of high protein snacks and some simple sugars
- Expect to spend 8-10 hours on the mountain if you don’t plan on camping at the top
- Take a camera – do not be a chicken. Film a falling rock (just be sure to take a good look before you go throwing things at people or goats or donkeys).
- Enjoy the view
And now a short message from our sponsors… or well some footage from our climb: